What Makes a Great Office?
Last year a New York City architect named Marc Kushner launched Architizer, something of a social-networking site for members of his beleaguered profession. On it, firms both mammoth and minor can post profiles, projects, and proposals. The 14,000 projects cataloged on the site (including the entrants in the World's Coolest Offices competiton, a collaboration between Inc.com and Architizer) provide a window onto trends in modern architecture and interior design, including the death of the cubicle, the redefinition of the break room, and more. Kushner described the evolution in modern office architecture to Inc.'s Christine Lagorio.
Let's start with the big picture. How has office design evolved over recent decades?
With the innovation of more human control over the atmosphere—electric lights and air conditioning—all of a sudden, offices were liberated from the window, which meant that architects could design incredibly deep floor plans. This over-control of the environment has been a detriment to the American worker. In Europe, there are laws that a desk cannot be more than a few feet from a window—the notion of an office without windows is actually illegal in Europe. In the States, only now is the trend changing back to a healthier, more natural way of building.
Speaking of natural, what is new in terms of the green trend?
A few years ago, green architecture was all about finding the most environmentally-friendly products, but I think that has shifted. Today, it's not about finding the most ecological countertop; it's using less countertop—or repurposing and recycling a countertop. Think about it: If you don't cover your ceiling with another layer of material, you've saved a huge amount of carbon in the manufacturing of that material, the transporting of that material, and the installation of that material. Not to mention cost.
On a larger scale, in-fill—the idea of repurposing entire buildings—is big. In cities in particular, cool people are always on the vanguard of turning unused spaces into something useful. And in urban areas, unexpected office projects are popping up more frequently.
There's been a recent re-thinking of office layout, too.
Specifically, you see a clear trend towards casual gathering spaces being a place to not just congregate, but also to actually do work—the employee lounge is now being used as part of the creative process. It's fun to see people fool around with that idea. From the pool tables of the nineties to the bean bag chairs of the dot-com boom, common spaces are changing, and becoming not just rest areas, but productive areas. In our Coolest Offices competition, we saw a couple of examples of interior amphitheatres, where either a presentation could be held, or a collaborative meeting. That's new and interesting.
Maybe the ultimate version of this concept is what I call the "box within the box" concept. Companies are experimenting with creating a sort of private space that's perhaps transparent, but quiet for a worker. The creative process becomes something unfolding in an aquarium ... something to watch happen. It's an update of an old idea.
But aren't boxes the opposite of the trend to open floor plans and building flexible, common work areas?
Maybe the trend is the rejection of the cubicle. You just conjure visions of Working Girl when you think about old cubicles. I think what people are experimenting with is getting that privacy without sequestering people into that defined space. Innovative approaches to privacy—those are interesting.
What else do you see when you look at modern office architecture?
The idea of not burying wires and infrastructure within walls and ceilings—exposing those things, like wire trays—is kind of a huge innovation. It's useful because you can trade out equipment without opening up walls and destroying your space. You're designing space that is built to grow.
That's not to say these systems can't be aestheticized, too. Think about the Pompidou Center in Paris. We've all seen air-conditining ducts installed beautifully. They can be something nice in and of themselves. All it really needs is consideration—looking for the answer within the material itself.
When does one need an architect, and when does one just need a designer?
The rule of thumb is that if you're moving a wall then you hire an architect. In offices, it's less true, because it comes down to space planning. You want to think about efficiency of space—and architects are really good at that. I'd recommend they don't just go for a look—"oh, someone used recycled wood, let's do that"—but rather focus on the functionality. Make a room list, and give an accurate brief of what programmatic spaces you need and what connections each of those require, and what kind of space it is. Is it a quiet space? Is it in the center of activity? Is it a sunny space? Basically, that kind of spreadsheet will save a lot of time, and the architect doesn't need to come in and play analyst. He or she can get right to work.
What tips might you give to a business owner who's looking to expand or construct a new office?
Use Architizer. No, seriously—at least to scope out projects, and find out what you like. Once you find out what you like, find someone that you like. There's a relationship aspect to working with an architect, too. You should choose someone you can get along with, because the building process is a long and intimate one.
So after reviewing the World's Coolest Offices, what makes a good office?
Good offices consider the joy of work. As an employer, you want to create an experience that is positive and proactive in the workplace. And we've seen much experimentation over the years—open offices, closed offices, eco design, and so on. But what it all comes down to is that a workplace is part of the human experience, and a nicer office can help you to have happier, more productive workers.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.
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